Bringing it All Back Home: The Roots Hoot Offers an Intimate Musical Experience in Peace Dale.
The Providence Phoenix, March 23, 2012
Richard Buckner, the roots rock vagabond, is pacing the floor and checking his gear. The gig tonight is a house concert in Peace Dale, a series under the name of Roots Hoot. Dan and Liz Ferguson, the homes’ owners, are in their respective roles. Dan is focused on sound equipment and the clock. His wife, Liz, glides from room to room with a smile and a glass of wine, saying hello to visitors and catching up with friends. Chairs fill the living room in tight rows. As people begin to sit, anticipation swells. The final beams of setting sun pierce through the screen door. Buckner, a bear of a man with long black hair and a ragged flannel shirt, takes his seat in front, drops a battered guitar into his lap and begins to pick out a constellation of dark, brooding chords. The crowds’ low mumbles melt into silence. Leaning into the microphone, eyes closed, he begins “You woke up too late. You know what they thought. While you were waiting for the strangers that had gone…”
Over the last decade or so, "house concerts" -- musical performances held in a house or apartment -- have grown in popularity in the U.S. The concept isn't necessarily new; punk, hardcore, and emo music was introduced to an entire generation of Midwest teens via high-energy basement shows in the 80's and 90's. This recent hybrid has primarily taken on a folkier vibe as concert hosts embrace "roots music", a fluid genre that dovetails through blues, folk, Tex-Mex and country, blooming into what Gram Parsons called "cosmic American music".
This musical style was practically invented in American living rooms at the turn of the 20th century, a time when nearly every family had a guitar or banjo player and popular entertainment was a local affair. These days, back-to-the-land revivalism, DIY experimentation and a deep craving for community has turned the house concert into a comforting antidote to the coldly digital, manufactured corporate music industry; even a brief respite from the cold digital world itself.
Since 2001, Dan and Liz Ferguson have hosted over 100 Roots Hoot concerts. Musicians have traveled near and far to perform on a stage of area rug, under lights no brighter than hundred-watt bulbs. On one night, the audience is silent, captivated by a shy singer-songwriter whose story songs come alive from the whisper of a voice. On another, fans rock out to the Telecaster riffs and pedal steel grit of a blazing West Texas garage band. And while the performers each bring their own unique sound, all have shared one commonality: genuine appreciation for being invited.
"All the artists want to come back," Dan says. "Every single one."
"People that we idolize are playing for tip jars," Liz adds. "They come here [and] get a captive audience, a fabulous dinner and they sell all their swag. Everybody wins."
High school sweethearts from Long Island, The Ferguson’s came to Rhode Island to attend URI in the early 1980's. After marriage, the couple decided to make Rhode Island their home. Children followed and the couple settled into the rhythms of careers and kids in Peace Dale, Dan working as a software engineer and Liz as a middle school Language Arts teacher. Devoted music fans, they would travel to every birthplace of Americana they could manage: Austin, Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans.
In conversation, Dan and Liz speak as a couple with a story to tell. Memories twist and turn, little details are added by each other, and yes, they occasionally complete sentences. Slight of build, with a Goner Records t-shit under a URI sweatshirt, Dan is friendly, thoughtful and funny, with a sardonic look on the world that comes off as strangely comforting. Liz is highly articulate and speaks passionately, an attractive former dancer who stresses that, although she and her husband share a love of music, both feel strongly the importance of having individual interests. Liz runs a dance studio in her spare time and Dan has his radio show.
Since 1987, Dan has hosted The Boudin Barndance (boudin being the ubiquitous pork sausage of the South) on URI’s station WRIU every Thursday evening. Thousands of shows highlighting every imaginable roots music style, was the seed that led to the formation of the Roots Hoot concerts.
"[In many ways] the radio show has fueled everything," he says.
As their children grew older and space became a premium, the Ferguson’s decided in 1998 to build an addition, a living room that leads to small porch. It was also during this time they were becoming increasingly disappointed with the music scene in Providence. The late 1990's were not kind to alternative country music and the genre fell off the radar of cool. Roots musicians were blowing minds in Austin and elsewhere only to skip Rhode Island on their tours. Clubs began closing or changing hands. Stone Soup and other coffeehouse-style joints had a lock on contemporary folk pop and occasional blues, but venues like The Narrows Center for the Arts were little more than a pipe dream.
Standing in the empty new addition, with its hardwood floors and high ceilings, Dan imagined a rug, hastily rolled and tossed aside to make space for dancing -- an old time hootenanny with live music, friends and food. He wondered: Could it be done here? After collaborating with friends for the first few years swapping hosting duties at different houses, Dan and Liz took over the Roots Hoot series and have hosted nearly all of the concerts at their home.
Covered in dark brown shingles and modest in size, Dan and Liz's house would blend into any New England suburb, but once inside, a visitor enters a universe wholly its own. Their kitchen plays double duty as a virtual scrapbook; hundreds of photographs capture travel, family and friends and the ceiling is decorated with old show flyers. Original artwork is placed around the house, including pieces by former Mekon Jon Langford. A surreal portrait of the Canadian band The Sadies, painted by local artist Wendy Brusick, graces their barn outside.
With walls of mustard yellow and pinkish trim, the homes' interior design is inspired by some of their favorite Austin haunts, especially the Texicalli Grille, a restaurant formally owned by the late Danny Young. Nicknamed "The Mayor of South Austin", Young's restaurant was a roots rock haven. His unexpected death at 67 in 2008 signaled the end of an era for many. Texas lost a living legend and to the Ferguson’s, who had flirted with moving to Austin permanently, the city was never quite the same.
“When Danny passed away, it took the wind out of moving there," Liz says. "We met a lot of people from him. He was the soul. A little piece of Austin died with him. He represented all that was cool about the old Austin.”
To Dan and Liz, friendship is invaluable. They take pleasure in providing their friends with fun events and turning them onto artists they might not have heard.
“I do feel a great sense of pride that we’ve passed something cool onto our friends," Liz says. "They don’t come here necessarily knowing anything about the music.”
"[Our friends] are getting smarter all the time," Dan says, with a laugh.
Friends have kept the concerts well attended, but the couple is careful to make newcomers feel at home. To be sure, organizing these events is not easy. Opening one's primary living space to strangers and musicians can be an awkward endeavor; let alone unpredictable sound systems, wear and tear on the house and possible neighbor conflicts due to parking and noise. In a testament to the good will they hold in their community, the police have only been called once, creating little more than a scene of bemusement (a New York folkie thrilled to have caused a ruckus worthy of lawbreaking, a sheepish cop telling the Ferguson’s "Look, I don't wanna be that guy").
Dan stresses that Roots Hoot is not an open mic. You need more than a broken heart and a guitar to be invited.
"I know what I like," he says.
Dan's ear for talent shines throughout the roster of past performers. Well-know artists such as Robbie Fulks, Rosie Flores, Justin Townes Earle, Eric Ambel, Syd Straw, Tim Easton, and Amy Rigby have all played at the house. Some artists have made multiple visits and regular attendees have had the rare experience of witnessing a musicians' artistic growth at close range.
To keep the roster fresh, Austin trips have become a two-part operation: visiting friends and family (their adult son lives there) and recruiting missions. The couple will "wine and dine" artists, persuading them to cut a notch in their itinerary to play a living room in Rhode Island. The pitch almost always works, with the promise of a home cooked meal, a packed venue and a generous audience to buy their wares. Even a warm bed can be provided. For many independent musicians, who could pass up such protection from the elements and the brutal rigors of the road?
Buckner is done. He leans the guitar against an amplifier and its feedback loop breaks his spell over the crowd. The audience looks at each other, awestruck, as if to ask in telepathy: Did we really just see this? From across the room, Dan and Liz give each other a smile -- just another Roots Hoot night.